How Build Back Better affects educational access, affordability

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The Build Back Better bill is making its way to the U.S. Senate floor with goals ranging from high-quality preschool programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds to increasing the maximum Pell Grant and investments in minority-serving higher-education institutions.

In this Q&A, U-M faculty members Christina Weiland and Awilda Rodriguez address questions regarding the legislation as it relates to both preschool and higher education.

Weiland, associate professor of education at the School of Education and associate professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, serves as co-director of the Education Policy Initiative at the Ford School. Her areas of focus include early education and educators, preschool and kindergarten. She is particularly interested in the active ingredients that drive children’s gains in successful, at-scale public preschool programs.

Rodriguez is an associate professor of education, and her research is at the intersection of higher education policy, college access and choice, and the representation of Black, Latino, low-income and first-generation students in postsecondary education.

Among other areas, the Build Back Better Act addresses early childhood education. The bill aims to offer universal and free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. How realistic is this?

Weiland: It is important to note that most of our peer nations already offer free, universal preschool starting at age 3. The United States has long underinvested in its youngest citizens. Families have had to navigate a fragmented, unequal system with few and far between high-quality options.

Build Back Better offers an historic opportunity to finally build the comprehensive, high-quality early care and education system our young kids, families, teachers and communities deserve.

What are the potential strengths of universal pre-K?

Weiland: Universal pre-K — if funded at sufficient levels — can help parents and kids by improving the quality of children’s early educational experiences. For example, many preschool teachers are underpaid (compared to teaching kindergarten), which incentivizes preschool teachers to leave, fueling turnover and undermining quality. The new federal legislation currently under consideration would help with some of these quality issues by providing the necessary resources and requiring pay parity for public preschool teachers.

What are the potential weaknesses of a universal pre-K model?

Weiland: Something that will require careful work is that under the current proposal, each state will have to decide to accept federal funding for universal preschool and then develop a plan for implementation. Some states may decide not to offer the program and thus their families will be left out.

The next phase will be developing a vision and plan for delivering on quality for those who do. Colleagues and I recently worked with policymakers in the state of Washington to offer a vision for high-quality universal preschool in that context. All states will need a vision to design, implement and deliver solid programs for children, families and communities.

The government states that the program will lead to lifelong educational and economic benefits for children and parents. How would it do this?

Weiland: Preschool is expensive and high-quality programs are hard to find. Universal pre-K can help take the financial stress off families and provide access for those who otherwise would not be able to send their children to preschool. It can also keep parents in the workforce, particularly moms, and help reduce the large penalties many parents pay in terms of lower wages, savings and benefits in the long term due to interrupted work trajectories when their children are young.

Decades of evidence dating back to the 1960s show that preschool better prepares children for kindergarten. The benefits can last through adulthood on essential outcomes like higher educational attainment and earnings.

In terms of higher and postsecondary education, the bill aims to increase the maximum Pell Grant by $550 for more than 5 million students enrolled in public, private and nonprofit colleges and expand access to Dreamers (undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children). How do you anticipate that would actually affect college affordability?

Rodriguez: An increase of Pell max by $550 will be helpful for low-income students, especially as the purchasing power of Pell has waned over the last few decades. But it’s also important to note that the Pell max isn’t the average amount that Pell recipients receive, which is much lower.

It will be important to track average amounts to really understand the effect on affordability. It is wonderful that Dreamers will be eligible — it will certainly be a game-changer for those families.

But excluding students enrolled at for-profit (institutions) from Pell is penalizing a lot of students from marginalized communities from trying to pursue degrees for what the government sees as “wrong” choices. Instead, the federal government should focus on accreditation and state authorization mechanisms to prevent predatory colleges from existing in the first place.

If the bill passes, it will invest $10 billion into historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and minority-serving institutions, with money for research and infrastructure. Why is it time to adjust federal funding in this way?

Rodriguez: MSIs have done and continue to do the important work of educating students from marginalized communities and are a critical part of the opportunity infrastructure in this country. Yet, they have been chronically underfunded in addition to having seen large enrollment drops due to COVID-19.

It’s exciting to see that the House recognizes the need to shore up the existing funding mechanisms for this critical group of institutions and the research and development infrastructure. This bill can have significant downstream effects on expanding the research enterprises at these institutions and position MSIs for new training, discovery and revenue.

The plan also mentions practices that help more students complete their degree or credential. What are key practices that support degree/credential completion?

Rodriguez: Higher education researchers have long since sounded the alarm that support programs are essential for student success in higher education — including academic offices, student affairs, diversity efforts, child care and career services. Yet, some state policymakers regularly refer to these services as “administrative bloat” or unnecessary line items in a budget.

Moreover, politics and COVID-19 are further eroding the availability of these services. For example, state policymakers in states like South Dakota and Tennessee who specifically threaten diversity funding, or the institutions across the country that have had to lay off or furlough their staff who support students.

Federal investments are critical, not just to rescue some of this programming on college campuses across the country but to signal the importance of this work that often goes underappreciated.

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